By Daniel Miller, on 2 February 2014
I want to suggest that conventionally when we consider the role of the photograph in society, we see this as a kind of three stage movement. First there is the practice of photography itself. We have assumed that this was merely the requisite technology, largely the handmaiden to the desire to have a photograph. Then there is the object, the photograph, and that was assumed in turn to be the handmaiden to the ultimate aim, which was to record something. The photograph was there to serve as an object of memory, a technical facility to retain an image beyond the relatively poor ability of the brain to accurately retain images of the past. It could be as an art, but it was more often a wedding or holiday.
Today most photographs are taken for their use in social media. Figures quoted online vary but it is suggested around 350 million photos are shared per day on Facebook, 55 million on Instagram, 400 million on WhatsApp and 450 million on Snapchat.
I want to suggest that as a result, we need to completely turn on its head our conventional understanding of photography. Memory has been reduced merely to the legitimation of having a photograph, but the photograph itself has lost its position as the aim of the exercise since mostly the photo is merely the excuse for what now takes centre stage which is the act of taking a photograph. Photography as an activity has moved from background to foreground. Fortunately we can see this sequence more clearly because it corresponds to the development of three social media sites in sequence. The movement from Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat/WhatsApp.
Photography on Facebook
Facebook now appears as the convenient bridge between more traditional photography and the more recent social media. Facebook places considerable importance on the photo album and the collecting of images. Everything shared whether tagged or not is also stored. One of the reasons Facebook’s long term future is likely to be older people, is that it is very effective in this role, certainly compared to conventional photograph album and the analogue photo. As Xinyuan recently noted you can turn to QQ to see yourself as you looked ten years ago when you first joined QQ, soon this will be common on Facebook.
Photography on Instagram
Photography on Instagram has a much more transient feel than Facebook. In working with young people I find that Instagram gives them a kind of creative project. All day they can think about what would make a good photograph? (similarly, what would make a clever tweet?). If they don’t see anything else, they can always take a Selfie. This gives purpose to the day and becomes a bulwark against the constant concern with being bored. As such, where once we framed the photograph, now we use photography to frame experience. Here we see the reversed sequence. Storing the photo, as in Facebook, is exposed as mere excuse for having a photo, which in turn is mere excuse for the real purpose, which is the project enacted by the act of photography itself.
Photography on Snapchat/WhatsApp
It was Snapchat that bludgeoned to death our conventional view of photography. If the photo can only last for a maximum of ten seconds, then we can’t even pretend it’s about memory or even about the image. The point about Instagram is now made explicit. It can only be the act of taking that matters. Except that on Snapchat/WhatsApp we realise that this is not just individual experience it is a social act, we take pictures in order to share, and to see the response to our sharing. We have to take the word ‘Snapchat’ literally – the photograph is just a form of chat, saying Hi, a more interesting emoticon. WhatsApp is a bit less violent a repudiation of the photograph, but still highly transient. Clearly we may work with all three of these social media and all three of these relationships to photography.
As I will argue in a more extended paper, the mistake is to think this makes photography more superficial, actually I will argue this makes photography more profound.